Banning Smoking in public areas in Lebanon

08Apr10

A smoking ban in public places is expected to take effect within a year, George Saadeh, head of the National Tobacco Control Program announced at a debate on tobacco control held at American University Beirut (AUB) Tuesday.

“There is at present a bitter political discussion raging about when the ban should become law,” Saadeh said. “Some are arguing for a two-year grace period, while the Health Ministry is pushing for three to six months. But I am positive that we will have a compromise and that we will get a ban in one year.”

The ban would encompass all public spaces, including restaurants and cafes, but would exclude outdoor areas. Narguileh would be banned along with all other tobacco products.

The new law would be enforced with penalties currently under review by the Justice and Administration Committee. Fines are anticipated to reach LL1 million for establishment owners who fail to implement the ban and LL50,000 for people who break the new law, Saadeh revealed.

AUB students, gathered to hear the keynote speaker, greeted the announcement with overriding support.

The university, which has enforced a smoking ban in public spaces since 2008, is seen as a test case for the country.

The ban, which limits smoking to select outdoor areas, is backed by the majority of students. A university survey found that more than 90 percent of nonsmokers and 36 percent of smokers among both students and staff were satisfied with the ban.

A corresponding national ban would be unanimously implemented and no special smoking licenses would be granted.

We will have a complete and comprehensive ban,” assured Saadeh. “Trying anything else in Lebanon simply wouldn’t work. If you give one person an exception, everyone will expect one.”

While opponents of the ban argue that it would hurt the hospitality industry, anti-tobacco activists firmly refute the claims.

More people don’t, than do, smoke in Lebanon,” said Sarine Karajerjian, an AUB student who spoke at the debate. “They are often unable to go out to bars and restaurants with friends because it is so smoky. All one will have to do is go outside to smoke, it will hardly ruin your evening.

Karajerjian made the comments on behalf of NGO, Rotaract, which last year organized an “Ain’t No Smoking” evening in Gemmayzeh. Over 35 bars and restaurants participated in the event which saw bars smoke-free for one evening.

It was difficult to get bar owners to agree,” Karajerjian explained. “But, some actually reported making more money that evening than they usually do and begged us to do it again.

Turkey, which had a high instance of smoking similar to Lebanon, imposed a ban in 2008 and the hospitality sector grew by 5 percent in 2009.

But despite the encouraging rhetoric, the overall mood at the debate remained skeptical.

No one is going to enforce this. We have a smoking ban at the airport but everybody smokes,” an audience member shouted. “The only thing which will have an effect is making cigarettes more expensive.

Increasing tobacco taxation is set to remain firmly off the agenda and will not be part of any new anti-tobacco legislation. An associated rise in smuggling, which would reduce government revenue, is being blamed for the move.

Pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs and a ban on tobacco advertising are expected to take effect in the near future.

“All MPs support banning advertising, and everyone has agreed on including health warnings on cigarettes. The only question left is whether this will take up 30 or 40 percent of the pack,” Saadeh said.

The Health Ministry anticipates that the planned limitations on tobacco will reduce smoking prevalence rates by 5-10 percent in the next 10 years.

It is projected that 3,500 people die annually from smoking related diseases in Lebanon and that 50 percent of all cancers can be attributed to tobacco. According to Health Ministry estimates, 45 percent of males and 34 percent of females are smokers, while 75 percent of children are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke.

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